02 January 2010

Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . [Season 2, Episode 2]

The second episode of this season's Spectacle: Elvis Costello with . . . turned out to be a mixed bag. Talented songwriters were grouped on the same stage throughout, taking turns with some of their more famous compositions. The guests: Jesse Winchester, Ron Sexsmith, Neko Case and Sheryl Crow.

Jesse Winchester is one of the hidden gems in popular music. Born and raised in the southern United States, he attended college in Massachusetts and then defected to Canada in 1966 rather than serve in the military during the Vietnam War. From this self-imposed exile he recorded his first album, the eponymous Jesse Winchester, in 1970. Produced by Robbie Robertson, it was a highly influential work on par with the other solo major releases of that year by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Neil Young. Although he would continue to release solid records over the coming years, because he could not tour the United States until the general amnesty declared by President Carter in 1977, Winchester probably missed the initial window of opportunity for pop stardom.

This episode appropriately begins with a blistering cover of Winchester's "Payday," with Costello and the song's originator trading verses. The opening cut on that first album by Winchester, it is a song Costello include on his Kojack Variety release back in 1995. Unfortunately, the interview with Winchester is edited severely, and the viewer - without a solid history of the singer's past - can never hone in on the effect the decision to move had on his career or his toiling in the musical trenches for nearly 40 years. On the other hand, we are treated to two other performances: the memorable "The New Old Tennessee Waltz" (from 1976's Let The Rough Side Drag) and the lovely "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding" (from this past year's effort Love Filling Station).

The Canadian artist Ron Sexsmith was featured next. Another critical darling, Sexsmith has made no secret of his personal influences: Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello. His first effort on the show is a solo "Secret Heart," a Beatleesque ballad. He also shares a cover of Costello's "Everyday I Write The Book" and Dylan's "Ring Them Bells."

The young (for this stage) and talented Neko Case, another transplanted American who made her bones in Canada, delivers a grand spark to the show. Her charming performance of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me" proves to be a wonderful moment. She also contributes her own "Prison Girls," but Case's presence on the show was too minimal for this viewer's taste.

The inclusion of Sheryl Crow is somewhat of a mystery on the panel. She just did not fit the tenor of styles presented; perhaps the need for a "popular name" held some sway with the producers of the episode. Her selections are predictable: "If It Makes You Happy" and "Leaving Las Vegas." We never learn of her musical influences, contrary to the basic premise of the program.

While the interviews were minimal, this second episode of the season did provide a change-up with the inclusion of more musical performances than usual. It was great television just watching the body language of the singers while they were not performing: the subtle keeping of time with a head or foot or finger, or gentle swaying back and forth while engrossed in the lyric. The most touching moment may have been the tear rolling down Case's cheek while listening to Winchester's "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding."

THE SET LIST (note video links)
1. "Payday" (Elvis Costello and Jesse Winchester, vocals)
2. "Secret Heart" (Ron Sexsmith, solo guitar)
3. "If It Makes You Happy" (Sheryl Crow, lead guitar; Costello and Sexsmith, acoustic guitars)
4. "Don't Forget Me" (Neko Case, vocal; Steve Nieve, piano)
5. "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding" (Winchester, solo guitar)
6. "Everyday I Write The Book" (Sexsmith & Costello, lead vocals; Winchester on harmony)
7. "Leaving Las Vegas" (Crow, vocal and acoustic guitar; Costello, electric guitar)
8. "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz" (Winchester, vocal and guitar; Costello, harmony)
9. "Prison Girls" (Case, vocal; Nieve, keyboards; Costello, electric guitar)
10. "Ring Them Bells" (Sexsmith, lead vocal; All, harmony; Nieve, keyboards )

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